Monday 19 August 2019

A question of who will blink first on no deal as PM sweeps aside diplomatic and legal niceties


Protesters have made their views clear outside Downing Street in recent days. Picture: PA
Protesters have made their views clear outside Downing Street in recent days. Picture: PA

Peter Foster

In recent weeks, as Boris Johnson campaigned for the leadership of the Tory party, the European Union was at pains to keep an open mind about his true intentions.

Mr Johnson had talked tough, ruling out a partial modification of the Irish backstop in favour of binning it entirely and demanding the Irish Border issue was settled in the same trade negotiating arena as the Dover-Calais one.

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He laid this plan out clearly, but still European diplomats waited and watched to see if - once in office - Mr Johnson would be less unequivocal.

But yesterday they received the clearest possible answer as Mr Johnson called simply for the "abolition" of the backstop, which Brexiteers see not as an "insurance policy" to preserve Northern Ireland's invisible Border, but an unequal treaty no self-respecting country could sign.

At a stroke, Mr Johnson appeared to sweep away the camp - nominally led by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox - which still believed that with a tweak, perhaps a time-limit or a unilateral exit-mechanism, the backstop could be rendered acceptable.

But yesterday at the dispatch box Mr Johnson, with a typically pugilistic flourish, swept away that world of diplomatic finesses and legal niceties.

Not only did he announce the backstop must be abolished, he set conditions for any future talks with the EU.

Britain, he said, stood ready to negotiate only if the EU accepted his demands that the Irish Border is addressed as part of the negotiations.

His people, he said, were ready to meet Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, and his team "on this basis" and "whenever they are ready to do so" - which, on those terms, Europe says it will never be.

EU diplomats and officials in Brussels have been clear there will be no compromise on its red lines, even if that puts the UK and the EU on a collision course toward no deal over the apparently intractable problem of the Border.

It is a wearingly familiar argument. Mr Johnson contends that the entire UK should be able to leave the customs union and single market while preserving a status quo Border in Ireland. Dublin and Brussels disagree, arguing it was only those two institutions that made the trade border "invisible" in the first place.

If the UK is leaving them, it needs to explain by what alchemy it can reproduce that border from without.

Mr Johnson insists technology can create a trade border, set back from the physical Border, but Europe and the Irish Government disagree.

This, they argue, is a border in all but name - imposed on Ireland and the people who live and work on that border in the name of facilitating an English desire to leave the EU.

The question now is, who will blink first as pressure builds towards no deal?

There is still talk of Mr Johnson employing a strategy in which his tough talk creates the diplomatic space for a compromise, but having set out his stall in this unequivocal manner, even getting to the table for talks will now require a climbdown.

Climbdowns cannot be completely ruled out as the reality of a no-deal Brexit starts to dawn on both sides. EU diplomats and officials no longer believe Mr Johnson is serious about a renegotiation within the bounds of what is acceptable to them. They were clear yesterday that Mr Johnson's statement could be explained only by a desire to create the conditions for an election.

The only question in European minds is whether that election comes as a result of Parliament blocking no deal or after a no deal has already happened. They look at the clear majority against a no deal and presume Mr Johnson will blink first, taking the opportunity as he does so to rally Brexiteer forces.

What happens then is, as one EU diplomat involved in the negotiations put it, "anyone's guess". (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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